I’ll put it simply: Everybody knows about Bob Dylan. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature last fall (which he only picked up this past week), everyone had something to say about it, from the folks who have been with him since the sixties to young people who have only just discovered his music, from dedicated fans who love everything about him to more disgruntled cynics who claim not to like his voice.
Triplicate is the first album he’s released since then. It’s an expansive collection made up of covers of classic American songs, and it marks his thirty-eighth studio album to date. Although this is Dylan’s first three-disc album, he’s done cover-comprised albums before — namely, his last two studio albums, Fallen Angels and Shadows in the Night. As with any album of this type, it makes sense to raise the concern: OK, these songs have all been done before. What new is being brought to the table? This is arguably especially true in the case of Dylan, who has received praise decade after decade for his ability to write groundbreaking and beautiful original lyrics and melodies. If the songs on this album were all written by other people, what is it about the album, other than the composition, that stands out?
But to ask this question might be to ignore something very integral to Dylan’s musicianship, and that is his basic love for what he does. Fallen Angels and Shadows in the Night weren’t his first forays into the realm of classic covers; in fact, he got his start in this style as early as the sixties. His very first album, Bob Dylan, had only two original songs on it. What caught the attention of listeners back then, and what continues to stand out today in Triplicate, is his ability to harness a piece emotionally and to recreate it using his own original feeling.
Just because the songs were written before doesn’t mean that they can’t be composed anew. “The Best is Yet to Come,” for instance, is originally a Frank Sinatra song, written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. The original version has a classic, undeniable Sinatra feel to it: It’s full of the joy of swing, the class of Hollywood. Dylan’s version is more, well, Dylan: The panache is all there, but the edge is a little softer, the locale a little closer to home than Hollywood. It’s not a matter of it being better or worse than Sinatra’s version; it’s a matter of Dylan using his own musical inclinations to breathe a new and different kind of life into a piece that he already loved and admired. This comes through also in “When the World was Young,” a classic song by Philippe-Gérard, Angèle Vannier and Johnny Mercer, with a theme of nostalgia that Dylan captures perfectly.
It is also worth noting that Dylan has always been attached, in certain ways, to ideas of legend. Many of the songs that have made him famous have been ballads introducing or reviving old stories, folkloric narratives and inventive reworkings of traditional sequences. It is easy to see, then, where Dylan would fit in, adding his own personal interpretations to the legacies of timeless songs like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” It is also beneficial to have these new versions, because even though these are old songs, hearing Dylan’s versions of them may help us to understand them in a new way.
Triplicate is overall thoughtfully put together, and worth a listen for anybody interested in hearing Dylan’s take on these songs. Even after so many years of prolific success, he isn’t slowing down, and it says something about his dedication to his craft (albeit something we all probably already knew by now) that he is still putting this level of attention and personality into his work. To be a skillful artist is to have enough compassion for the world to be able to replicate it completely, to say something about it that is truly meaningful in the form of a piece of art, and Dylan does this instinctively in all of his work, both covers and originals alike.